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'Put your own mask on first'

As they care for thousands of hurricane survivors in Florida, responders need to stay safe themselves.

BY SUSAN KIM | CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. | August 18, 2004

"People get so involved in what they're doing, they forget to take care of themselves."

—Helen Stonesifer

As they care for thousands of hurricane survivors in Florida, responders need to stay safe themselves.

After five days of conditions that one Federal Emergency Management official described as "extreme stress and extreme fatigue," what can responders to do keep themselves going?

"They need to take care of themselves," said Trey Jones, canteen coordinator for The Salvation Army, which was operating 65 feeding stations across the state.

Jones compared it to the advice airplane passengers receive should an aircraft lose pressure. "They tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first," said Jones. "And that's what we want people to do. If they don't take care of themselves, we can't get anything done."

Safety and health dangers for responders may include heat exhaustion and dehydration; injuries from operating near damaged structures and debris; traffic accidents; illnesses from eating spoiled food; and even confrontations with looters.

And even though power is slowly being restored, live wires are still present. More than 400,000 people were still without power on Wednesday afternoon. It will take weeks to fully restore electricity, said power officials.

Jones said responders in the throes of helping people should remember that police and fire officials are the safety experts. Sometimes responders have the urge to quickly help that can be likened to running into a burning building, said Jones - but while the intention is good, safety must prevail.

"We train our canteen crews to work with local police and fire officials to determine the safest location for a canteen," said Jones, adding that The Salvation Army also has a pastoral care officer who circulates among canteens to help responders showing signs of fatigue.

Sometimes responders are so dedicated to their work, they become focused on their mission and forget themselves.

Volunteers from the Church of the Brethren's Disaster Child Care (DCC) program undergo rigorous training to learn how to work with children who are living in a post-disaster situation. And part of that training is learning how to take care of themselves, said Helen Stonesifer, the program's coordinator.

"People get so involved in what they're doing, they forget to take care of themselves," she said. "We set hours for volunteers, and we split them into shifts that include days off," she said. "You have to do that."

The DCC program was asked by the American Red Cross and by FEMA this week to send teams of caregivers to affected areas. Two disaster project managers are being dispatched to set up the child care centers.

Staying safe is also why it's important to be a part of affiliated, trained volunteer teams, rather than just showing up at a disaster site and randomly pitching in, added Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for U.S. disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

“Before any UMCOR team sets out to clean up debris, a team member is responsible for determining what’s safe,” said Hazelwood.

Volunteer teams cleaning debris can be endangered by everything from live wires to toxic substances, he said.

Keeping an eye out for fatigue among responders is also important, Hazelwood added. The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church is designating a team that will offer pastoral care for pastors who are responding to needs in their communities. "Many of the pastors are affected themselves. Their homes or their churches are damaged or destroyed."

The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church is also planning to provide a chaplain who will offer spiritual care for long-term response teams.

Hazards for responders and hurricane survivors alike are increased because power is still out for thousands of people in the state. It is difficult to keep food refrigerated and, for those responding in the field, it's sometimes hard to find safe water.

Volunteers trying to set up impromptu relief distribution points on the roadside or in damaged structures may risk injuries from collapsing structures. Trying to repair homes or churches in the intense heat can also be dangerous.

Medical officials also reported they were concerned about West Nile virus because of standing water, and thousands of windows without screens or glass. West Nile has reached epidemic proportions in Arizona, officials from that state reported on Tuesday.

The U.S. death toll from Hurricane Charley rose from 19 to 20, when an 86-year-old man who had evacuated his home fell and died in a motel. Officials in Charlotte County reported that three new deaths may be linked to the aftermath of Charley. The three died Monday in a crash at an intersection where the traffic lights were not working.

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